The Navratri- the nine nights before Vijaya Dashami or Dussera are a time when millions across India celebrate the glory of the goddesses from the Hindu pantheon. Central to this celebration is the recitation of the powerful Devi Mahatmya, also referred to in many parts of the country as the Durga Saptashati or ‘Seven hundred verses to Durga’. An ancient text dated back to around the 5th century CE, little is known about its authors, but what we do know is that this text has an even deeper history. It brings together strains of myths and legends from Shaivite, Vaishnavite, and tribal traditions that go back thousands of years!
The seven hundred verses of Devi Mahatmya narrate three separate episodes or narratives, in which the great Goddess achieves victory over demon kings or Asuras- a depiction of good over evil.
For instance in the first episode, Vishnu battles the demons Madhu and Kaitabha with the help of Goddess Mahatmaya. In the second episode, the Goddess takes the form of Mahishasuramardini, the killer of demon King Mahishasura. According to this legend, the demonic army of Mahishasura, the buffalo demon defeated the army of gods or Devas under Indra. Cast out of heaven, the gods appealed to the trinity of, Vishnu and Shiva for help. They in turn produced a light from which a powerful goddess emerged. The Goddess fought the forces of Mahishasura, killing all his generals one by one. In the final battle, the Goddess cut off the head of the Mahishasura in a single stroke. In the third episode, the Goddess kills Asura kings, Shumbha and Nishumbha after long battle, much like her fight with Mahishasura.
The best way to understand the story of Devi Mahatmya and the Goddess is to look at a) The Evolution of the text b) The various influences that helped create the cult of the goddess and the imagery around it.
Originally, the Devi Mahatmya was just a sub-section of the Markandeya Purana, one of the 18 primary puranas, comprising chapters 81-93 of this text. In this Purana, Rishi Markandeya, who is said to have authored this work, narrates the history of the world through the cosmic ages called ‘Manvantaras’. When he narrates the eighth Manvantara or cosmic age, he makes a reference to the goddess who becomes the focal point of these 12 chapters.
This sudden appearance and disappearance of the goddess in Markandeya Purana, has led many scholars like John Stratton Hawley, Thomas Coburn, David Kinsley and others who have extensively studied the worship of Goddesses in India, to believe that these chapters were a later interpolation to the Markandeya Purana. In North Western India, they date Devi Mahatmya to between 5th to 6th century CE. From there, they say it spread to Bengal, and then to South India in the 9th century. Sometime in the 14th century, a set of very powerful texts were added to the Devi Mahatmya and they were known as the six angas or limbs. There are the popular Devi mantras like the Argalastotram and Kilakastotram.
Interestingly, while the main Devi Mahatmya text was written and added to between the 5th and 14th centuries, the cult of the Goddess venerated in the Devi Mahatmya and the imagery around it go even further back, over thousands of years.
In 1980, a group of Indian, British and Australian teams under noted Archaeologist and Anthropologist Desmond Clark and historian GR Sharma made a significant discovery while they were carrying out excavations in Medhauli village in Son River Valley in North Eastern Madhya Pradesh. There they uncovered a prehistoric site dated back to around 9000 BCE.
The site had a circular shrine which had a peculiar pattern of concentric triangles in the center. The villagers helping with the excavations recognized it as the symbol of the Devi or Shakti, which they still worshiped. The find in Medhauli tells us that Devi or Shakti worship has been going on in India for thousands of years.
The earliest known reference to the word ‘Durga’ which means ‘Difficult to access’ comes from the Rigveda. Over here it is used as the neutral adjective or noun and never as a female name. Durga first appears as a goddess in Vedic literature in the Yajur Veda. Here she is described as the flaming one’ connected to the power of the Sun and Moon gods.
The earliest known imagery of Durga as we know her- a goddess slaying the buffalo demon comes from six statues and a terracotta plaque found in Nagaur in Rajasthan dating back to 1st - 4th century BCE, several hundred years before Devi Mahatmya was composed. The terracotta plaque even has the sculpture of a lion, popularly associated with the goddess.
If that’s the story of the origins of Devi worship and the imagery we find today, you may ask the question, where does the reference of buffalo becoming the epitome of evil come from? Archaeologists have an answer for this too. The famous French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin believed that the buffalo comes from an even older tradition. He opines that the hordes of wild bull terrified the early Neolithic so much that it must have personified evil. This reference can even be found on a Harappan tablet, which shows a male figure killing a water buffalo, much in the same way as the goddess does, by pinning the head down with a foot and killing it with a spear. While this has no connection with Goddess Durga, it does point to possible connections.
This is not where the connections and cross connections between history, myth and living traditions end. In the Mahabharata, there is also the association of Durga with Goddess Vidhyavasini. This association is formed by two hymns found in Mahabharata - Durgastava (Chapter 4 verse 5) invoked by Yudhishthir and Durgastotra (Chapter 6 verse 22) invoked by Arjuna. Interestingly, you can find a very ancient temple dedicated to the Goddess Vidhyavasini near Allahabad. Here, the face of the Goddess is like that of a bird with a beak-like nose. And this is very similar to the bird-like statues of Goddesses found in Mesopotamia! Vidhyavasini, by the way, also gets incorporated in Vaishnava tradition as the sister of Krishna.
Further afield, in the Medhauli village, on the foothills of the Vindhya Mountains in the Son river valley, there is the oldest known shrine found by archaeologists in 1980 of the mother goddess. There is a tribe called the Asur tribe found across UP, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Assam. They don’t celebrate Navratri and for them it is a period of mourning. This brings the connection between legend and history to a full circle.
It is amazing how different strands, traditions, myths and facts weave their way into creating the glory of the goddess - the Devi Mahatmaya that is chanted in temples and homes across India even today. The text is the point where history and beliefs, through millennia meet - a tradition of pulsating, living history!